Bullying Symptoms & Signs
Bullying refers to physical or verbal aggression that is repeated over a period of time and, in contrast to meanness, involves an imbalance of power. Bullying is common among children and adolescents and seeks to exclude the victim from a group. Bullying can also occur among adults.
Signs and symptoms of someone who is being bullied can include
- missing belongings,
- unexplained injuries,
- having a limited number of friends,
- declining grades, or
- being self-destructive.
What is bullying? How can someone distinguish bullying from hazing or meanness?
While state laws have little consistency in their definition of bullying, the accepted definition by the U.S. Department of Education and by many mental health professionals is unwanted physical or verbal aggression directed at a specific person, repeated over a period, involves an imbalance of power, and acts to exclude the victim from a group. It is further characterized by the bully repeatedly using higher social status over the victim to exert power and to hurt the victim. When the harassment, name calling, gossiping, outing, rumor spreading, threats, or other forms of intimidation expand from being done in person or by phone to the use of emails, chat rooms, blogs, or other social media over the Internet, it is referred to as cyber bullying or online bullying. In contrast, hazing is part of initiation of the victim into a group, and meanness does not involve an imbalance of power. Further, meanness involves hurtful behaviors between people who are equals, in social standing and otherwise.
People usually think of bullying as taking place between children at school. However, it can also occur at work and include aggressive behaviors like verbal abuse, sabotaging the victim's job or work relationship, or misusing authority. Adult bullies who engage in these behaviors are males 60% of the time. While men who bully tend to victimize both genders equally, women bullies target other women about 80% of the time.
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How common is bullying? How common is hazing?
Some statistics on bullying suggest that 28% of students from grades six through 12 have a history of being the victim of bullying, while 30% of high school students acknowledge having bullied other students. About 10%-14% of children have been the victim of bullying for more than six months. Most victims of cyberbullying have also been victims of school bullying.
Boys tend to engage in bullying more often than girls, especially at high school age and beyond, and are more likely to engage in physical or verbal bullying, physically or verbally, while girls more often engage in relational bullying.
Studies show that teachers often underestimate how much bullying is occurring at their school since they only see about 4% of bullying incidents that occur. Further, victims of bullying only report it to school adults one-third of the time, usually when the bullying occurs repeatedly or has causes injury. Parents tend to be aware their child is being bullied only about half the time.
More than 40% of workers in the United States experienced bullying in the workplace. More than 90% of working women are estimated to believe they have been undermined by another woman at some time in their careers. However, due to the stereotype that women should be more nurturing, a woman may perceive normal supervision from another woman as undermining.
Nearly half of high school students and more than half of college students who have been part of a club, team, fraternity, sorority, or other organization have been hazed at some time.
What makes a bully? Why do kids bully? Why do adults bully?
Bullying is the result of the bully's need to get and keep control over someone else. The aggression that is involved in bullying interferes with the empathy needed to refrain from bullying others. There are two different types of aggression: proactive aggression and reactive aggression. Proactive aggression is described as being organized, emotionally detached, and driven by the desire for a reward. Reactive aggression is defined as impulsive, in response to a perceived threat or precipitant, and usually associated with intense emotion, especially anxiety or anger. Contrary to the stereotype of the bully who is socially inept trying to make him or herself feel better, bullies who have never been the victim of bullying have rather high self-esteem and tend to be social climbers. Child and adult bullies have a tendency to have low tolerance for frustration, trouble empathizing with others, and a tendency to view innocuous behaviors by their victims as being provocative. They are more likely to suffer from a mental health problem compared to non-bullies. Many non-victimized bullies are thought of as bi-strategic controllers, using both prosocial actions (for example, likeability and popularity) and negative actions (for example, intimidating or coercing others) to engage in these hurtful behaviors toward others.
Bullies who have been the victim of bullying themselves (bully/victims) tend to be more aggressive than bullies who have never been a victim of bullying. They tend to be less popular, more often bullied by their siblings, to be otherwise abused or neglected, and to come from families of low socioeconomic status.
Bystanders of bullying, those who witness it but are neither the primary bully nor the victim, tend to succumb to what they believe is peer pressure to support bullying behavior and fear of becoming the victim of the bully if they don't support the behavior. Further, bystanders are at risk for engaging in bullying themselves if they encourage the bullying by paying attention to the behavior or laughing about it.
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What are causes and risk factors of bullying?
Risk factors for being the victim of bullying include having low understanding of emotional or social interactions, a tendency to become upset easily, or already suffering from anxiety or depression. Actual or perceived obesity of the victim is also a risk factor. Being underweight is slightly associated with being bullied. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth are more often victims of bullying compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Children who have disabilities or are immigrants or highly achieving minorities are more vulnerable to being bullied, as well.
What are symptoms and warning signs of children and adults who are bullied?
Signs that may indicate that a child may be being bullied include missing belongings, unexplained injuries, and a limited number of friends. Symptoms experienced by victims of bullying may be physical, emotional, and behavioral. Examples of physical symptoms include those often associated with stress, like headaches, stomachaches, changes in appetite, bedwetting, dizziness, and general aches and pains. Psychological symptoms often include irritability, anxiety, sadness, trouble sleeping, frequent nightmares, tiredness in the mornings, loneliness, helplessness, and feeling isolated. Victims of bullying may exhibit behavioral symptoms as well, like avoiding social situations, getting to school or work late, taking off more days, skipping school without telling parents, or even trying to retaliate against their tormentors. Their grades may decline and they may become self-destructive (for example, run away from home, hurting themselves or contemplating suicide).
What are the effects of bullying? What are the effects of hazing?
Bullying can be associated with significantly serious problems. Teens who bully are at greater risk for engaging in delinquent behaviors, including vandalism, as well as violence inside and outside of school. They are also at risk of substance abuse and dropping out of school. Victims of these behaviors also tend to develop or increase their severity of anxiety. Bullies and victims tend to experience depression more than their peers who have not been involved in bullying, which can lead to academic problems, frequent absences from school, loneliness, and social isolation. Research shows that bullies and their victims are also at risk for having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People who were bullied as children are at risk for having less of a supportive social network during adulthood, and those who were bullies/victims during childhood may have poorer physical and financial health, more antisocial behavior, and be more likely to become a young parent compared to bullies who have never been the victim of bullying. Victims of workplace bullying may suffer from reduced job performance, more absences, and less work satisfaction. Ultimately, bullying may be the cause of higher staff turnover. People who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying seem to be more vulnerable to experiencing both internalizing (for example, loneliness, depression, and anxiety) and externalizing (for example, antisocial) symptoms.
Victims of hazing are at risk for physical or emotional problems, sleep problems, a decline in academic success, impaired relationships, a loss of respect for the group that hazed them, and a loss of trust in other group members. These individuals are also at risk for needing medical or psychiatric hospitalization.
Either being a bully or the victim of bullying increases the risk of engaging in self-harm, as well as suicidal thoughts and actions in both boys and girls. However, research indicates that the risk of both thoughts and attempts at suicide seem to be higher for girl victims and girl bullies no matter how infrequently the bullying occurs. However, the risk of suicidal thoughts seems to increase in boy bullies and victims when the bullying occurs repeatedly. Interestingly, the frequency of suicide gestures/attempts in boy bullies and victims seems to increase even when bullying occurs infrequently.
What should victims of bullying and their parents do to stop bullying? What are the treatment options for victims of bullying?
Child development professionals tend to suggest that if parents think their child is being bullied, they should take it seriously and encourage their child to talk about it. Remaining calm and supportive, and reassuring the youth that he or she is not to blame for the victimization can go a long way to creating a climate that helps the victim of bullying feel comfortable enough to talk about it. Parents should try to gain details about their child's bullying and who is involved, and teach the child how to respond to being bullied assertively without getting upset. The child may also find it helpful to stay with other students and a teacher so the bully has less opportunity to engage in the behavior. Other ways to stop bullying in schools include parents contacting school personnel and remaining in touch with them to seek their help in alleviating the bullying. At the same time, parents should understand that school personnel are often unaware that bullying is occurring, and their kid may fear reprisals for having school authorities alerted. Since 2015, the District of Columbia and all 50 U.S. states have laws against bullying, and as of 2018, 48 specifically include cyberbullying in the description. Contrary to the inclination of many parents, mental health professionals advise against contacting the parents of the bully.
Aside from addressing the bullying directly, victims of bullying may benefit from engaging in activities that can improve their confidence, self-esteem, and overall emotional strength, whether it be sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. Engaging in such activities can also help the youth create and strengthen friendships and improve their social skills. Professional help in the form of psychotherapy and/or treatment with psychiatric medication may be necessary if the victim of bullying has significant emotional symptoms that interfere with his or her ability to function that rises to a diagnosable mental health condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a particularly effective approach to helping victims of bullying cope with the emotional turmoil that results from their victimization and to ultimately decrease their victimization. CBT helps bullying sufferers understand and manage their thoughts and feelings around being bullied, as well as understand how those thoughts and feelings affect their actions. This approach to therapy can further help the victims of bullying build confidence and learn ways to discourage their victimization.
What should parents do if they think their child is bullying others? What are treatment options for people who bully others?
Advice for parents who think their child is bullying others includes talking to their child to share the details of the actions of which he or she has been accused and listening to his or her side of what happened, holding the child fully and fairly accountable for his or her actions, spending more time with him or her, monitoring his or her activities, and supervising him or her appropriately. Other tips for parents whose children are bullying others include staying in close touch with the school to monitor for any further incidents and encouraging the child to engage in positive social activities with positive role models. All bullies may benefit from being given socially appropriate ways to express their aggression (for example, through martial arts, writing, or other supervised group activities). Those who were formerly victims of bullying may experience a decrease in bullying behavior when their life is improved through protection from adverse experiences, including domestic violence, abuse, or neglect. Bullies who exhibit sufficient symptoms to qualify for a mental health diagnosis should receive treatment accordingly.
What can parents do if the school downplays a report of bullying?
Since bullying tends to flourish in secrecy, parents are commonly advised to continue communicating with school personnel and other pertinent community members until the bullying has been addressed and resolved. For example, if the behavior is reported to the child's teacher and the teacher fails to intervene, parents should consider advancing through the school chain of command to the school counselor, assistant principal, and principal. Parents of other victims of bullying may be sources of support, as can be the child's pediatrician.
What can people do if they see someone being bullied?
Bystanders to bullying can help discourage bullying behavior by asking other people who are witnessing the bullying how they feel about what they have seen and whether they feel the behavior is right or wrong. The group of bystanders can decide individually or as a group to positively influence the situation by expressing their disapproval toward the bully and/or notifying people in authority, like teachers, counselors, or administrators at school, or supervisors or the human resources department in the workplace. Bystanders to bullying can also discourage the behavior by encouraging the victim to ask for help from peers and authority figures.
What measures can be implemented to prevent bullying at school and in the workplace?
Schools and individual classrooms that tend to be supportive of all children tend to prevent bullying. Effective bullying prevention programs at school tend to be school-wide and involve education of students, teachers, administrators, and parents on what bullying is and the extent to which it is harmful for all involved, understanding how others may view victims, and how to get help. Yearly surveys of kids can help maintain awareness of how severe the bullying problem is in a school. Just informing the parents of bullying victims tends to improve the victim child's quality of life. Successful anti-bullying programs increase playground supervision, provide clear consequences for bullying, and teach students who are bystanders to bullying how to stand up for victims so that bullying behavior gains a stigma rather than being socially beneficial.
Workplace interventions that tend to be effective are similar to those in school, in that the interventions are implemented throughout the workplace. Coworkers and supervisors are encouraged to address each other by name and with respect, fully participate in required tasks, and avoid gossiping about each other or excluding anyone from conversation.
Interventions that have not consistently been found to be helpful in preventing or decreasing bullying include having the bully and victim try to work out their differences in front of a teacher or counselor at school, a supervisor, or human resources staff at work. Rigid rather than firm no tolerance for bullying policies tend to result in overreactions to behaviors that do not constitute bullying. Telling students above the elementary school level to report bullying may lead to increased bullying. Teachers or work supervisors who either directly or indirectly intimidate other kids themselves or tolerate such behaviors are an obstacle to implementing an effective anti-bullying school program.
How can people reduce their risk for being bullied?
Since low self-esteem tends to be a risk factor for becoming the victim of bullying, interventions that promote confidence and self-esteem are important ways to reduce the risk of being bullied. Confidence builders can range from engaging in activities at which the person excels (for example, theatrical performances, sports teams, and special work projects) to engaging in psychotherapy. As isolation is both a risk factor and result of bullying, helping the person feel less alone by lending a listening ear and/or engaging in a support group can go a long way toward providing the community needed to prevent a person from being bullied.
Medically Reviewed on 4/28/2022
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